By Kevin Meyer
Rules are a funny thing. We like some of them because they make us feel protected, aligned, and perhaps operating on a fair playing field. We dislike them because they can protect us to the point of being smothering, align us to the points of being constraining, and fair to the point of being unfair. Regardless of perspective, there are an increasing number of them. Over 3,000 new laws and regulations each year, for starters.
I won't get into the political side of the increasing number of rules, but what are we doing to ourselves as a society? Or individually as humans? Stay tuned…
Years ago I visited Italy and was surprised at the traffic.
There are very few traffic signals in Italy. The town of Naples, with a million people, has about three (and I'm being serious). Signage is basically ignored. Miniature cars, and the rare larger sedan or SUV, rush all over the place intermingling with Vespas, buses and trucks. Sorrento, Rome, Florence… all roughly the same. This seems like pure mayhem and insanity to visitors from the U.S. with our highly disciplined traffic control… until you start to realize something:
Traffic flows continuously, everywhere.
Ahh… but it can't be as safe, right? Wrong. Statistics show that Italy has a motor vehicle accident rate that is about 30% better than the United States.
There's actually some science behind the chaos – and some towns that are exploiting the science as this Salon article points out.
In fact, the chaos associated with traffic in developing countries is becoming all the rage among a new wave of traffic engineers in mainland Europe and, more recently, in the United Kingdom. It's called "second generation" traffic calming, a combination of traffic engineering and urban design that also draws heavily on the fields of behavioral psychology and — of all subjects — evolutionary biology. Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it's a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty.
"One of the characteristics of a shared environment is that it appears chaotic, it appears very complex, and it demands a strong level of having your wits about you," says U.K. traffic and urban design consultant Ben Hamilton-Baillie, speaking from his home in Bristol. "The history of traffic engineering is the effort to rationalize what appeared to be chaos," he says. "Today, we have a better understanding that chaos can be productive."
And another from Der Spiegel with a story on how seven European cities are participating in an experiment to remove all traffic signs. Not just signs, but parking meters, lights, sidewalks, and even the painted lines on streets.
Drivers [in regulated areas with many signals] find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop a kind of tunnel vision: They're constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out the window.
The new traffic model's advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves.
Chaos can be productive, liberty creates responsibility. A month ago I wrote about how some enlightened companies are applying this concept to their own internal rules.
[At Neflix] there is no vacation policy, and the travel and expense policy is literally five words: "Act in Netflix's best interests." Netflix believes high performance people people should be free to make decisions, and those decisions need to be grounded in context.
In the world of Netflix, flexibility is more important long term than efficiency. To inhibit the chaos that too much flexibility in a large organization can create, hire (and keep) only high performance people. High performance people make great decisions, which are better than rote rules.
Now we may have more psychobiological understanding on why this is the case. And it comes from some interesting experiments with school playgrounds in New Zealand.
Ripping up the playground rulebook is having incredible effects on children at an Auckland school.
Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don't cause bedlam, the principal says. The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.
"When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult's perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don't."
Swanson School signed up to the study by AUT and Otago University just over two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play. However, the school took the experiment a step further by abandoning the rules completely, much to the horror of some teachers at the time, he said.
I bet there was some horror, but what are the results?
When the university study wrapped up at the end of last year the school and researchers were amazed by the results.
Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush and tree climbing kept the children so occupied the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol. Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a "loose parts pit" which contained junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose.
"The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. It was expected the children would be more active, but researchers were amazed by all the behavioural pay-offs.
Schofield urged other schools to embrace risk-taking. "It's a no brainer. As far as implementation, it's a zero-cost game in most cases. All you are doing is abandoning rules," he said.
"All you are doing is abandoning rules." If only it was that easy.
Society's obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.
Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. "You can't teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn't develop by watching TV, they have to get out there."
Risk creates engagement, and engagement creates understanding – be it of the environment, consequences of actions, or simply new concepts. Understanding creates high performance decisionmaking.
Whether it's in the chaos of traffic, the corporate offices of Netflix, or on the playground.
So what about all those rules? In the quest for structure, equality, and serenity, what are we doing to ourselves? And the next generation? Instead, how can we create and leverage chaos and risk to improve engagement?
John Broomfield says
Thank you Kevin for reminding us that our brains light up when we are not constrained by rails or rules.
But risk assessments tend to result in more rules to exploit or avoid the risk.
Would you say that principles instead of rules allow groups to break through their barrier of risk aversion?
Christopher Mahan says
Excellent. I like it a lot.
(also, loose square bracket in the first paragraph–follow the rules man!)
David Apple says
I watched our local high school basketball team play last Saturday. They appeared to play with reckless abandon, full speed ahead. Certainly they made mistakes, but they also had great successes which lead to a close victory. The players are very skilled so there must be some discipline in practice. However, in the game they let their skills and instincts take over.
I believe soccer is the same way. Unlike other sports, the coaches cannot and do not control the game. The players play. I suspect the difference between Brazilian soccer and German soccer is who controls the play, the players or the coaches, who is more creative and who is more fun to watch.
Jack Parsons says
I spent some time in Paraguay and I don’t remember seeing a stop sign there. I navigated the major intersection in Ciudad del Este that did not have any traffic light and everyone sort of negotiated themselves through the chaos. As an American I felt very uncomfortable, but made it through to the other side. In situations like this everyone is driving defensively because that is the only way to drive!
Kanwal Jit Singh says
Reinventing the Theory X and Theory Y principles of management that were propounded quite some time back by McGregor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_X_and_Theory_Y
Although rules have increased, the value of recalls and penalties have increased, so have the profits.
Joe Filipowicz says
I think this sort of thinking is what allows smaller organizations to be the true innovators these days. The chaos of smaller organizations yields more exciting ideas. Another thing rules tend to produce is a lack of accountability. We can hide behind “following the rules” regardless of the ultimate outcome.